Kawhi Leonard delivered the winning bucket in the dying seconds as the Toronto Raptors survived a tough test from one of the hottest-rolling teams in the Western Conference Friday night.
The Raptors withstood a huge 35-point performance from CJ McCollum, which included a stunning seven three-pointers, and escaped with a dramatic 119-117 victory.
Leonard led the Raptors with 38 points, including the game-winning pull-up jumper. Marc Gasol had his best game yet since joining the team – 19 points, eight rebounds and six assists. Pascal Siakam rolled for 16 points, while Kyle Lowry added a double-double – 19 points and 10 assists.
The Raptors – still second on the East – improve to 46-17. The Blazers drop to 38-24, hovering around fourth place in the West.
The Trail Blazers came into Toronto scorching hot, riding a five-game win streak that included victories over powers like Boston, Philadelphia and Golden State. They had also handed Toronto a loss earlier this season – 128-122 in Portland in December, a game that Lowry did not play because of a thigh contusion.
Like the Raptors, the Blazers are fueling up for a high-stakes post-season. Portland had an impressive regular season last year and secured a No.3 playoff seed in the West, only to flame out in the first round in a humiliating sweep by the New Orleans Pelicans. Led by the elite backcourt of McCollum and Damian Lillard, Portland is once again positioned for a good seed. But if the Blazers don’t succeed in the playoffs this time, they risk being disassembled.
To tangle with Portland’s productive 7-footer Jusuf Nurkic, the Raptors started Marc Gasol at centre instead of Serge Ibaka, the second start for the 7-foot-1 Spaniard since the Raps acquired him last month. Raptors coach Nick Nurse reiterated that he’s partial to having the two players share the starting five spot on a game-by-game basis, depending on matchups.
Nurkic committed two fast fouls in the first four minutes of the game, and without a single field goal attempt, he headed to the bench for the rest of the half. It would create a competitive advantage for Toronto, and Gasol would capitalize.
Portland was without its other powerful centre, Enes Kanter of Turkey. Kanter did not travel to Toronto due to the Red Notice the Turkish government has submitted to Interpol soliciting his arrest. Kanter reportedly fears he could be killed because of his criticism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The Raps opened Friday night’s game on the same roll they generated in Tuesday’s authoritative win over the Celtics. They shot a sizzling 64.7 percent in the first quarter, and 60 percent by half-time.
Despite still missing critical backup point guard Fred VanVleet (thumb), the Raptors looked cohesive. It appeared to be another step in the development of the Raptors’ chemistry – and a highly entertaining one.
Gasol and Jeremy Lin were finding magic with their new teammates. The team was displaying countless examples of its collective potential, connecting on zippy, creative passes, ball-hawking on defense, and creating flashy transition buckets. Leonard and Siakam were connecting for explosive baskets.
Nurse said it’s “fun to watch” when Gasol is wheeling and dealing the ball, and it’s “beautiful basketball”. He complimented the synergy the new big man is finding with Lowry, and his team’s willingness to incorporate the new additions.
“I feel a concentration on trying to integrate these new guys, because I think they believe these guys have made us better,” said Nurse. “They’re willing to pay attention a little more than they usually would this time of year in the film sessions. They’re letting us keep them on the floor a little longer in practice. I’m feeling a positive vibe about let’s be good, let’s polish what we need to polish and get these guys up to speed.”
The relentless McCollum was taking the Blazers on his back all night, rifling off a career-high-matching number of three-pointers to keep his team within striking distance. Despite trailing by as much as 16 Friday night, Portland came back to tie the game in the final four minutes, then bullied into a slight lead.
With just 13.8 second remaining, Lowry was whistled for a questionable foul on Lillard, which allowed the Blazers to tie the game at the free throw line. Leonard hit the winning jumper with 1.5 seconds left on the clock, sending the nervous Toronto crowd into a frenzy. Leonard left a hair too much time on the clock for his coach’s liking. Lillard was able to launch a desperate Hail Mary shot but it was well off the mark.
Lillard ended up with 24 points for Portland. Nurkic was held to 10 in just 19 minutes.
The news wasn’t all good for Toronto Friday night. Nurse was not pleased with his second unit’s performance, especially the shooting. Ibaka struggled off the bench, contributing just two points on 0-of-5 shooting along with seven rebounds in 16 minutes as a reserve. Lin was the only bright spot on the Raptors’ bench with eight points and an assist. The Raps’ bench was out-scored by Portland’s, 27-16, and they all had very poor plus-minus numbers.
That ends a six-game homestand for the Raptors, the team’s longest of the season. Next the Raps head to Detroit to face Dwane Casey’s Pistons on Sunday, before hosting the Houston Rockets back in Toronto on Tuesday.